Bad Vibes in Kingston, Mass.
Clean, green wind power might be our best weapon against climate change. So why do some people say it’s their worst nightmare?
Chapman and his colleagues searched records to compile a history of complaints against wind farms in Australia, and found that nearly two-thirds had never received complaints about health or noise from people who lived nearby. The majority of complaints, he says, came from people who lived near six wind farms that had been targeted by opposition groups, and 79 percent occurred after 2009, when Pierpont’s book was published and groups opposing wind power began spreading the word.
Chapman’s conclusion was bolstered by a recent New Zealand study from the University of Auckland, which showed that people who are told that infrasound can make them ill later report feeling unpleasant symptoms when told they’re being exposed to infrasound in the lab—even when they are not. People who weren’t told to expect adverse effects were far less likely to report problems, even when exposed to actual infrasound.
Still, Chapman acknowledges, telling people it’s all in their head will not make wind turbine syndrome go away. “When an individual says to you, ‘I am really sick,’ and they look emotional, they look drawn, and they have people around them corroborating this,” he says, “it really takes a lot of interpersonal courage to say, ‘Here is some counterfactual information.’”
Whatever Chapman’s research may have found, Sue Hobart is certain that she’s suffering from wind turbine syndrome. The suggestion that her symptoms could be caused by anything else gets her shaking with anger. “I got to the point of near suicide, and I was hospitalized,” she tells me at her house. Eventually she moved into the cellar to get as far from the noise as possible. “I was sleeping in the basement with mice running around the insulation above my head, getting crazier and crazier. It was the worst time in my life.” At the invitation of Wind Wise members, she and Ed have spoken to groups in towns that are considering hosting wind turbines. “This will be exposed,” she avows. “It’s like secondhand smoke, and asbestos, and everything else. The green-energy team is suppressing it.”
Indeed, things in Falmouth have lately begun to go the Hobarts’ way. In November, responding to a lawsuit filed by neighbors, a judge ordered the town to turn off the two 400-foot-tall turbines at its water-treatment plant from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and all day Sunday, along with Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s. And in December, the town’s zoning board of appeals declared the turbines a nuisance in response to complaints from Vietnam veteran Barry Funfar, who said they were causing him “mental confusion and anxiety.” Funfar’s case had been championed online by Wind Wise and Nina Pierpont.
Unlike wind turbine syndrome, the science behind climate change is well established, and the need for sources of energy that do not contribute to it is something most Americans agree on—a recent Gallup poll showed 71 percent support more wind power. Right now, wind supplies 4 percent of U.S. energy needs, and the Department of Energy says it could generate a fifth of our power by 2030. But while most people want more windmills, it seems that few want windmills in their backyard. As people like the Hobarts and the Reillys demonstrate, more thought may need to go into how America develops its wind power network.
Despite state leaders’ enthusiasm for wind, Massachusetts has so far left the details in the hands of cities and towns, offering tempting incentives to build turbines with little guidance about where they should go. The state does have a model bylaw that, if municipalities choose to adopt it, requires that turbines be set back from the nearest home by a distance of at least three times the height of the turbine—usually about 1,200 feet—but that limit has not been widely implemented. The legislature has before it the proposed Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, which would require the state to form an advisory group that would set statewide standards for noise and flicker. However, because the act would also expedite the approval process for turbines and limit appeals from opponents, it has attracted strong opposition from groups like Wind Wise and has so far failed to reach Governor Patrick’s desk.
In the absence of guidelines, fights like the one in Kingston threaten to erupt across the state. But if attempts at regulation seem paralyzed right now, anti-wind activists are heartened by the rulings in Falmouth, which was one of the first towns to erect large wind turbines near homes, and which now is one of the first to take steps toward shutting them down. “It does give me hope that the tide’s starting to turn against these things being in residential areas,” Sean Reilly says. “We do need alternative energy, but you can’t put it near people who are trying to live in their homes.”
In Kingston, the state is conducting an acoustic study of the landfill turbine, and the town is considering a bylaw that would require the turbines to be shut down when shadow flicker is at its worst—a compromise the Reillys say would go a long way toward alleviating their distress. But what is good news to the anti-wind forces in town has only frustrated those who support the turbines. Back at his bar and grill, Mark Beaton says he’d hoped that Kingston’s embrace of alternative energy would serve as a model for other Massachusetts towns. Instead, he now worries that clean energy has lost the public relations battle. “Wind Wise comes in, you’ve got the politicians that are afraid of losing the vote, and the whole thing is threatening to come to a screeching halt because of a vocal minority,” he says. “Kingston is a test case. If they start curtailing it, no bank, no insurance company, no bonding company is going to go into Massachusetts and put up a turbine.”